It is a commonplace amongst communitarians, socialists and feminists alike that liberalism is to be rejected for its excessive ‘individualism’ or ‘atomism,’ for ignoring the manifest ways in which we are ‘embedded’ or ‘situated’ in various social roles and communal relationships. The effect of these theoretical flaws is that liberalism, in a misguided attempt to protect and promote the dignity and autonomy of the individual, has undermined the associations and communities which alone can nurture human flourishing.
My plan is to examine the resources available to liberalism to meet these objections. My primary concern is with what liberals can say in response, not with what particular liberals actually have said in the past. Still, as a way of acknowledging intellectual debts, if nothing else, I hope to show how my arguments are related to the political morality of modem liberals from J.S. Mill through to Rawls and Dworkin. The term ‘liberal’ has been applied to many different theories in many different fields, but I’m using it in this fairly restricted sense. First, I’m dealing with a political morality, a set of moral arguments about the justification of political action and political institutions. Second, my concern is with this modem liberalism, not seventeenth-century liberalism, and I want to leave entirely open what the relationship is between the two. It might be that the developments initiated by the ‘new liberals’ are really an abandonment of what was definitive of classical liberalism. G.A. Cohen, for example, says that since they rejected the principle of ‘self-ownership’ which was definitive of classical liberalism (e.g. in Locke), these new liberals should instead be called ‘social democrats.’My concern is to defend their political morality, whatever the proper label.